The Diocese of Eastern Oregon has introduced a resolution that would remove the Episcopal Church's canon that makes Holy Baptism a prerequisite for the reception of Holy Communion. It's too early to tell whether it will even make it out of committee and on to the floor of General Convention for debate this July, but it's certainly not a bold from the blue: The restrictive canon is already honored in many places more in the breach than in the observance. It's been a subject of conversation and debate for some years now.
What we are witnessing in this discussion, I think is the Law of Unintended Consequences asserting itself. When we gradually recovered the centrality of the Eucharist during the last century, codified in the 1979 BCP, the presumed cultural environment was still that of "Christendom." An unbaptized adult was a relative rarity. At the same time, there was also a presumption that whatever happens on Sunday morning is the church's "show window" to the world, that the experience of corporate worship would be a newcomer's first encounter (even if invited by a friend) with who we are and what we do. It would be the worship service that would either draw them deeper or, for whatever reason, turn them away. Now, there is the added factor of the exponential secularization of our society; there are vestiges, artifacts, of Christendom, but they are disappearing rapidly.
As a result, we now have a sort of "perfect storm": We have unbaptized adults walking through our doors, curious or inquiring to one degree or another, and encountering, of course, the Eucharist, and a tacit "vibe" that going forward to receive communion is simply what one does, especially if one wishes to remain inconspicuous. And those of us who identify ourselves as the "hosts" of these our "guests" feel like we're being downright impolite if we place any restriction on who may receive the sacrament. Hence, the pressure to bend or amend the rules.
But, is there another possible response that honors both the received tradition and the impulse toward hospitality? I think there are at least two--one a stopgap, of sorts, and the other more profound.
The stopgap: This past January 7, my Archdeacon and I attended a Christmas liturgy at a nearly Russian Orthodox church. We were in clericals, people there knew who were were, and we knew we were not invited to receive Holy Communion, and made no attempt to do so. But immediately upon the conclusion of the liturgy, we were accosted by a lay liturgical minister who brought us unconsecrated bread that came from the same loaf that the consecrated portion had been cut from--the "antidoron"--and were enthusiastically offered this bread. I have rarely felt more welcomed in my life. That act, to me, was "radical hospitality." I'm not sure how something like this could be adapted into our liturgical tradition, but it seems worth thinking about.
The profound: Our post-Christian world certainly is not the same as the "pre-Christian" world before Constantine, but there are some significant commonalities. Might we not learn from some of the praxis of the pre-Constantinian church? The whole process of the catechumenate--integral to the baptismal piety that so many are keen to foster--is adapted from this era. But one thing we have not adopted is the "privacy" of the Eucharist. Service times were not only not widely published, a non-Christian would have had to know somebody who knows somebody to even learn when and where the Eucharist would be celebrated. And even when successful at discovering that information, an unbaptized inquirer would not only be denied communion, but barred from even remaining in the same room after the homily. The Creed, the Prayers of the People, and the Peace were also the exclusive preserve of the baptized.
I'm not suggesting we go back to meeting in secret, but I do wonder whether we might do well to shed the presumptive expectation that the principal liturgy on Sunday is where the uninitiated will have their first and defining encounter with us. Some might say, "Sure, let's have Morning Prayer, or some non-liturgical form of public worship, in addition to the Eucharist." I think that's worth exploring under some circumstances, but probably doesn't go far enough. It still assumes that our goal is to get "them" to come to "us". I, for one, am more excited about a mission stance that takes "us" to "them"--connecting with people outside of any worship, at the level of their felt needs, and walking with them until we've earned the privilege of inviting them to consider other needs they may not have been aware of, to consider the questions for which Jesus is the answer. And then we fan that spark of faith and begin to form them in discipleship, perhaps before they've even come within a mile of our church building! Then, as the last step of the process, we baptize them and introduce them to the Eucharist.
There are, I believe, many advantages to such a strategy, but one of them is that the Eucharist is freed to be what it is, and not pressured to be something it's not (like a "tool" for evangelism). There's no more reason to "dumb it down" in any way to be "seeker sensitive" ... or even radically hospitable. Christian corporate worship is for all--both Christians and "pre-Christians." The Eucharist is for the initiated, the baptized. We need to learn to be clear about that distinction.